Senate Dems Make New Unemployment Insurance Push
Policy + Politics

Senate Dems Make New Unemployment Insurance Push

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Senate Democrats say that they have gone back to work on their effort to renew a federal program that supplements state-level unemployment insurance for the long-term jobless. But they appear to have given up on the effort to make the benefit extension retroactive to the end of 2013, when Congress allowed the program to expire. 

The news is bittersweet for advocates for the jobless, who this Spring watched a bi-partisan Senate bill, which included a retroactivity provision, wither and die as the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives refused to allow a vote on the measure. The House GOP leaders also prevented an unemployment insurance extension bill introduced by members of their own party from coming to the floor. 

Related: GOP “Runs Out the Clock” on Unemployment Insurance

In an interview with National Journal, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said that he is working with Sens. Jack Reed (D-RI) and Dean Heller (R-NV) to craft another bill that can get through the Senate and which might have a chance to get through the House. 

The issue at hand is a federal program that supplements state-level unemployment benefits after they expire. State benefits typically run out after about 26 weeks. However, during times of extended high unemployment, Congress has typically authorized a federally funded extension. At one point during the Great Recession, benefits extended to 99 weeks, though they were eventually cut back to 72 weeks.

In December, Congress failed to renew the extension of federal benefits, meaning that someone who lost a job in June of last year saw their benefits cut off after six months, while a neighbor who lost a job in January of 2013 benefited from a full year of unemployment benefits. The number of unemployed workers affected is now in the neighborhood of 3 million.

The Senate, in March, passed its bill renewing the federal extension for five months, and promising retroactive payments back to the end of December. Despite its bipartisan support in the Senate, though, House Speaker John Boehner has so far kept the bill from getting a vote on the House floor.

Related: Why Unemployment Insurance Won’t Be a Campaign Issue

While bills passed by one house of Congress are typically still valid pieces of legislation until the Congressional session ends, the Senate-passed unemployment bill has a limited shelf life. Its five-month extension ended in May, meaning that all the benefits of the bill would now be retroactive. 

Politically, passing a wholly retroactive extension is a non-starter, and passing an extension that, for instance, extended benefits to the end of the year and also provided retroactive benefits, would be far more expensive than the bill House Republicans already blocked.

Whether Reid et al will be able to craft something that House Republicans can accept is an open question, but multiple false-starts on renewing unemployment insurance benefits have left the community of long-term jobless and its supporters extraordinarily frustrated.

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